Insofar as it plumps for a "heart-warming and inspiring" general vibe (and it does: it's even in the production notes), Justin Chadwick's new film The First Grader certainly gives itself a fighting chance. Well, how many cockle-warming boxes can you check: illiterate octogenarian; overflowing rural Kenyan primary school; the massive, rolling expanses of the Kenyan bush; the accompaniment of African music and a dazzling, wholesome heroine to beam at the screen whenever things start to lag a bit.
Chadwick makes the most of these facilities, available to him in abundance, and why not: there are several scenes where unbearably cute little children buzz happily around the sombre silhouette of a elderly figure, and it is impossible not to be gladdened, whatever the context. Kimani Maruge, the titular first grader, even wears a child's school uniform - including shorts and socks - and gamely wrestles with cat, sat and mat by day and in the night retreats to a darkened shed, and stares into the distant darkness with ancient, sad eyes.
Before long we are let into the secret of those sad eyes.
As of course it must be, while based on a true story this account is heavily fictionalised: only that nod to verisimilitude gave any licence to make a film which would otherwise be too cheesy to survive the pitch. No doubt in a number of ways the real story would have made for inconvenient narrative: I doubt, for example, Maruge actually marched into the Kenyan education minister's office and ripped his shirt off.
While Chadwick is never ambitious with his film - he knows what his assets are, flaunts them, and doesn't try any funny stuff - he is nonetheless challengingly political. In its back-story First Grader is by no means saccharine: Maruge was a Mau Mau resistance fighter in the fifties, was imprisoned for the best part of a decade and, as the screenplay unfolds, we find out it is this history which compels him to seek his education. The film repeatedly flashes back to the resistance, and the flashes don't compromise. There's some pretty brutal viewing in there. Now, all Maruge has is a letter. And he can't read it. Hence the story.
The Mau Mau's plight at the hands of the British colonials is at the top of the news agenda at the moment, so Justin Chadwick couldn't have timed it better in terms of profile; on the other hand I suspect he may have romanticised the struggle somewhat (the Mau Mau are portrayed more or less as hapless victims; the British as torturing fascists), and this may lead to some charges of revisionism that he might otherwise have avoided had his story not had the same currency.
There are a couple of missteps: in an attempt to force the narrative, the screenplay calls for some anonymous antagonism (crank calls and threats of various sorts) which don't appear plausible since all that is going on is an old fellow showing up at a rural primary school for some reading lessons. Some of the parents at the school display a positively North London sensibility when it comes to their furthering their children's education at all costs: this didn't really ring true either (simply put, no peasant farmer could be quite that neurotic) yet this antagonism is allowed to build seemingly to boiling point, at which point it just dies off without resolution.
This review couldn't pass without mention of Naomie Harris, who is simply radiant whenever on the screen, and completely occupied the character of the principled teacher who takes Maruge in regardless of the firestorm it improbably provokes. Harris could have been reading the back of a cereal packet and I'd enjoy it: it's hard not to like a film when there is such a natural sparkling beauty in it. Expect to see more of this young lady in the next few years.
The First Grader sets itself an unambitious target and, with such prime quality raw material, gets home easily. Those of a delicate sensibility go in forewarned, though; some of the scenes from the Mau Mau uprising are more disturbing than you commonly see in a "heart warming and inspiring film"